Monthly Archives: October 2010

Sweep train

A while back I mentioned sweeping but didn’t explain what that meant, though you might have guessed it had something to do with checking the alignment. It does – in the interest of safety (no surprises there – you’ll notice that is the predominant theme here), whenever a train hasn’t passed over a section of the alignment in several hours, the first train through that area is a sweep train. The sweep trains run at lower speeds to do a safety check on the alignment.

This is not a sweep train picture, or even a train operating before sunrise. It is, however, a train operating under low lighting and I’m going to say that’s the next best thing. I have no directly relevant photographs for this post.

Under normal operating conditions, the regular sweeping is done by the first train every morning through each area of the alignment. This is built in to the runs for those trains:

Note at the bottom of the paddle for the first train out of the Ruby yard, which sweeps Burnside, the Banfield, Holladay, and Interstate.

And here’s that first Yellow Line on the TriMet timetable – the sweep train takes 19 minutes to get to Gateway and then another 20 minutes to get to Rose Quarter, but the Blue Line that leaves Cleveland at 4:06 (and all the ones after it) will take 17 minutes from Ruby to Gateway and then 15 minutes from Gateway to Rose Quarter. Those trains can travel at full speed once the alignment has been swept.

Sweep speed is 25 mph or the posted speed limit, whichever is less – so the sweep train from Rose Quarter down 5th Ave to the Jackson turnaround at PSU is going to do 15mph, not 25. Point of trivia – 25mph is the slowest speed a train can go down Burnside (where the speed limit is 35mph) and still make all of the pre-empts before they time out.

In the event of sweeping after an emergency – such as an earthquake, as mentioned in the other post, it’s reasonable to expect that Control will ask for restricted speed in the sweep trains rather than the standard 25mph. Restricted speed for MAX trains is 20mph or the posted speed, whichever is less, but always at a speed that would allow the operator to stop within 1/2 their sight distance.

This is why there’s no faith

Via Portland Afoot – apparently one of the things discussed at this morning’s board retreat (I wasn’t there so I am getting this secondhand) is that the new Director of Capital Projects Dan Blocher (successor to Neil McFarlane, who is now the General Manager) is planning to ask the TriMet board to borrow an additional $20 million – on top of the $40 already being borrowed – against the future operating budget to put towards the Milwaukie Orange Line.

Meanwhile, I got this in my mail, and if you live in the Portland Metro area I’m sure you did too:

Oh Dorothy, my vote on Measure 26-119 isn’t going to give you reliable service

Right before this last round of service cuts at the beginning of September, I remember reading an article where someone, I think it was Neil McFarlane, said that the budget for building Milwaukie was separate from the budget for service. And even if Milwaukie was cancelled that minute, it wouldn’t free up any money to restore service. I’m not an economist, but I understand that money – especially when it’s federal money – is granted for a specific purpose and can only be used for that purpose, so it’s reasonable that money from the federal government specifically earmarked to build rail can’t be used for anything else.

But borrowing against our existing operations budget to focus on capital projects? Milwaukie rail should not be the main priority. I mean, take this bond measure for example – why is building new alignment more important than making sure our bus stops and buses are ADA accessible? If we’re going to borrow anything at all and vote on anything at all, why not vote on Milwaukie and borrow against our budgets to fix bus stops that people in wheelchairs can’t access? Shouldn’t maintaining our existing service come first before building something we can’t sustain?

Leaves and slippery rail

The oils of dead leaves combined with rainwater makes for one of the most slippery track surfaces

It’s that time of the year again – leaves are falling and the rainy season starts, leading to a lot of wet leaf buildup on the rails – a well-known problem in the rail industry. You’ll hear a lot of sand being dumped in this kind of weather to help give the trains traction. It’s especially problematic downtown, where city workers use their leafblowers to blow the leaves from the sidewalk (good!) into the right of way (bad!), probably not realizing the hazards that can cause. Remember that the rail downtown is girder rail:

Borrowed picture of girder rail profile, photograph by MrK

Girder rail at Lloyd Center – ATS magnet and call loop also visible

That grooved area gets filled with the leaf debris which is dangerous. The train wheels need a clear area to pass through there while maintaining contact with the rail at all times – it is possible for leaf debris to insulate the electrical circuit between the train and the rails, and also possible for the train wheels to leave the rail if that groove is filled with enough debris. Around switches, the leaf debris can prevent the switches from being fully set (and the extra sand being dumped for traction doesn’t help either). You’ll see track maintenance people keeping the rail cleared to mitigate these problems.

Overall TriMet passengers aren’t generally affected by delays due to leaf buildup, but be careful when walking across pedestrian crosswalks over the rails and please do not blow, dump, rake, or otherwise deposit leaves in the right of way.

Health care and the sickout

And here we go with round 2 of this mess.

Portland not pictured, but would fall somewhere between #12 and #64. Source

I’ve already gone into why TriMet operators receive those health benefits – the job has severe negative health impacts, and so the union has negotiated a lot of the compensation to union employees to be in the form of health care rather than straight pay, which is why the hourly rate is lower than other cities. And the health care is not “free” any more than the paycheck you get from your job is “free” money. So effectively, with this announcement of requiring workers to cover some of the health care costs, TriMet union employees are taking a pay cut. And… somehow this became something for the public to be thrilled about?

This is not a zero-sum game.

What, specifically, are you (“you” being anyone calling for the firing of all bus/rail operators or saying anything along the lines of “I’m miserable and broke, therefore we all should be miserable and broke”) thinking that supporting this will accomplish? A bus driver needing to pay more for benefits doesn’t make yours cheaper. Nor does it suddenly require your boss to provide health care as part of your compensation. Your anger should be at them, not at fellow workers who thus far have not been screwed over. By all means be angry at what you may have lost, but don’t misdirect your anger. I don’t know any bus or rail operator who is happy at how much people are suffering right now, and doesn’t have friends/families/loved ones who are also struggling with pay cuts and high health care costs (if they can even afford insurance)

I don’t remember seeing any bus drivers cheering when the news reported that Intel was closing its Hillsboro office, losing 1000 jobs. Or when another 200 Oregonians were laid off when Cessna left the state. Or when another 200 Oregonians lost their jobs when Con-Way decided to outsource. You know why no bus drivers left hundreds of nasty comments on those stories?  Because it sucks when your fellow citizens are faced with pay cuts and/or lose their jobs, that’s why.

No one would blame any of those workers for being angry at being wrung over by their employers, but for some reason TriMet operators aren’t allowed to be upset when the general manager makes a unilateral decision that would change the contract while the contract is still awaiting arbitration? Now that it’s bus drivers (and the rest of the union workers too, but the bus operators are always the main target) as the focal point, suddenly it’s open season on transit operators for the rest of the public? Hundreds of comments across all the major Oregon news sources calling operators “fat”, “stupid”, “pigs” – what are we, in 5th grade again with the name calling? What is wrong with you people?!

Yes, many would. That’s the problem – companies are too eager to pay people next to nothing so they can blow money on their own pet projects.

And so many of those comments just show how ignorant people are – like thinking that TriMet operators are PERS employees (no), or that when your bus or train shows up 10+ minutes late, the driver is doing it because they’re lazy or to spite you, therefore all operators should be fired. Did it never occur to you that when a bus or train is that late, there’s a good chance that operator isn’t going to have time to take a bathroom break for the next few hours in order to try to make up that lost time? Or that they’re late because of traffic or because they’re unfamiliar with the route if it’s not one they usually do? Full confessional time – my first time operating a full trip on a Blue Line train from Cleveland to Hatfield, I was extremely late by the time I got to Hillsboro, not because of any incident that was delaying service or because I wanted to spite my passengers, but because I was so completely new at what I was doing and I didn’t have a very good sense of timing things – and it was my own fault that the train was that late because I was so new. If you were on my train, well, sorry. I did take a bathroom break though before turning around and going back to Cleveland. I’m not sorry for that. There haven’t been new operators in a while to make things run late, but there are plenty of reasons why your bus or train will be late and pretty much none of them have to do with operator spite.

This whole divide and conquer approach is sickening. Operators don’t hate the public (sure, there are some jerks that do, but find me any job that doesn’t have its share of jerks), and the public should not be turning on the operators for this. Want to be angry? Fine! Direct it where it should be directed.

  • Be angry that TriMet paid former General Manager Fred Hansen $40,000 to advise Australia on how to build a transit system. Australia didn’t pay for his services, we did, which then-TriMet board leader “[didn’t] see it as a material issue, expensewise”.
  • Be angry that TriMet poured in $20+ million to a company they knew was failing (but felt was of “little concern”) in order to get WES, because by god, we need commuter rail.

Photo from the Portland Mercury

  • Be angry that the Green Line (which had service cuts before it even opened) was celebrated with a swanky foie gras & cocktails party where executives could congratulate each other on opening the Green Line. You know, I was one of the many nameless, faceless people who did some of the not-so-glamorous work into getting that going… where was my party invite?
  • Be angry that former Executive Director of Operations Steve Banta received a $15,000 retention bonus, stayed until after the first of the year (the stipulation for collecting the bonus) and then promptly left for Phoenix.
  • Be angry about the sneakiness with numbers surrounding the Milwaukie Line (and I say this as someone who obviously likes rail). We’re $130 million short, but then got $27 million from Metro, $20 million from the city of Portland, and a $10 million state grant to which spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says “We all came together quickly, and basically have almost closed that entire gap, and so I think everyone in the region feels very comfortable and really confident that we’re moving forward.”  27+20+10 = 130? Must be that new math.

None of this contributes to you as a rider getting reliable service (well, maybe the WES, but that carries a small fraction of TriMet riders). At least operator health benefits contribute to keeping your bus driver healthy and doing their job so that your bus shows up. And again, this had been part of the mutually agreed upon compensation for employees – and I’m in favor of your employer giving you the same exact thing. So for TriMet to decide that this, this is the breaking point after all of this other nonsense that was just fine and dandy to blow money on is ludicrous.

That being said, I don’t support a sick-out today. I do not fault any driver, mechanic, supervisor, etc who is angry about the way this whole thing is being handled. But I have never liked misdirected anger. Calling a sick-out doesn’t do a thing to hurt the people making these decisions. You think TriMet is going to send the salaried office workers (who don’t carry CDLs) out into the field to fill in for operators who don’t show up? Of course not! Their day isn’t going to be affected one way or the other. All a sick-out would do is screw over the transit dependent, and TriMet management does a good enough job of that on their own. They don’t need operators’ help making it worse.

Short and sweet.

Question: Are TriMet bus & rail operators PERS employees?




If you’re going to criticize, at least get your facts straight.

More on the sick-out rumors, health insurance cuts, & everything else later.